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Akane Takada & Benjamin Ella

First Soloist & Artist, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, London, 3 December 2015

AKANE STARTED DANCING aged three after having watched ballet on television and asking her mother if she could try it. Her mother took her to a ballet school in Tokyo where Akane fell in love with ballet. There is no ballet in her background. This is in contrast to Benjamin, whose parents, Christine Walsh and Ricardo Ella, were both dancers and now teach.

Ben did not like dancing at all when he was young and so he was 11 before he started, however, the combination of another boy at his academic school doing ballet at his parent’s ballet school and the comments of his tennis coach that he needed more flexibility meant that he then tried a class. For two years he took a class a few times a week but then aged 13 his teacher, who was Russian, gave him a video of Carlos Acosta dancing which Ben watched three times a day every day and which made him want to do ballet.

His mother is from Sydney in Australia and his father is from the Philippines. His mother started dancing aged three and loved it from the beginning. Aged 15 she went to the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne and then joined the Australian Ballet at 18 where she danced for a few years before having to take a year off due to injury during which time she went to London to do rehab with Betty Anderton (who is still a guest teacher with the Company). She stayed in Europe and danced with Roland Petit’s company (there is a dvd of Petit’s Carmen with Baryshnikov and Zizi Jeanmaire dancing which Ben’s mother is in). before returning to Australian Ballet as a Principal and finishing her dancing career there.

Ben’s father came from a very poor background in the Philippines where he did martial arts, acting and worked as a stuntman before starting ballet at 19. His martial arts background meant that he was very strong and flexible and, unusually, at 21 he got a scholarship to the Australian Ballet School. He danced with the company but then had to return to his family in the Philippines. He then joined the Royal Ballet of New Zealand where he danced as a Principal before moving to Australian Ballet where he danced as a Coryphée and met Ben’s mother.

Akane started dancing at a small, local school which was 20 minutes from her house. Her teacher pushed her as she thought that Akane had potential, so aged nine she started dancing in competitions. Ballet is expensive in Japan and so Akane worked in Starbucks and 7-11 in order to pay for her pointe shoes, tights and costumes. She could not change her variations for the competitions as she could not afford to change her costumes. Aged 15 one of these Japanese competitions gave her a scholarship to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow. Her mother was of course worried about Akane going to Russia due to the distance, the language barrier and the cold weather but she trusted Akane to be fine. Once there Akane had Russian language classes and, as the grammar is similar to Japanese, she found it easier to learn than the English she learned later.

At the Bolshoi foreign students were normally in a separate foreign class, which is also for Russian students who were repeating a year, but Akane’s teacher thought that Akane was good enough to be put in the Russian ballet class where there were two other non-Russian students, one Korean and another Japanese. The Russian teaching focused more on the upper body than her Japanese teaching. There was a focus on the use of the head, the shoulders, the arms and movements were larger, whereas in Japan everything was square and the focus was more on technique. The day started at 9.30am with class till 11am and teaching was until 5.30pm covering a variety of styles of dance, including character, contemporary, ballroom and jazz. Akane spent two years in Moscow and while there was no real opportunity to dance with the company, Akane did one performance of Snowflakes in The Nutcracker as someone was needed for an emergency. The school performance was also in the Bolshoi theatre.

Ben, between the ages of 13 and 15, was on a programme which meant spending half the day at his academic school and half the day at his parent’s ballet school. Then in January 2006, his parents were taking a girl from their school, who is now dancing in Oslo, to compete in the Prix de Lausanne. While the family were in Europe, Ben auditioned for the Royal Ballet School (RBS) and the Paris Opera Ballet School. He had already sent a DVD and he took class for two days in Paris and for a week at the RBS Upper School. Although he was offered a place at both schools, he decided on the RBS as they offered him a full scholarship whereas in Paris there are no scholarships for foreign students, the teaching is in French and, in addition, you have to find a host family for the weekends when the dormitories close.

Her time in Moscow taught Akane that ballet is not just about technique and that the body must tell the story. It also taught her how to enjoy time on stage. She is very thankful for her teacher there. At the school performances she danced Flames of Paris, solos from Paquita and her exam included Appartement by Mats Ek. She finished at the Bolshoi at 17 and as Akane did not want to dance for a Russian company – too cold! – she decided to compete in the Prix de Lausanne where she danced the Act 1 solo from Giselle and Nocturne by John Neumeier. Akane won an Apprenticeship and had the choice of ABT2 or the Royal Ballet (RB). She chose the RB as she loved dramatic ballet and as she admired dancers such as Miyako Yoshida and Darcey Bussell.

As Akane spoke no English when she joined the Company, she missed a lot of rehearsals in the first few days as she found it hard to work out what was going on. She also missed most of a performance of Ondine, although she did make it for Act 3. Both Ben and Akane commented that the transition to dancing as a professional is difficult as everything becomes your own responsibility in comparison with school. It is also difficult starting with ballets that most of the company know, such as The Nutcracker or Swan Lake, as the teaching can be less detailed. Now the company have started rehearsals just for new people for the repertoire staples which is better.

Akane’s first ballet was Swan Lake and, as there were a lot of injuries, she danced in most of the performances. Her mother came to see her dance in this and, of course, cried when she saw Akane in Act 4. Her mother always sits in the front row and watches her face and not her technique at all.

Ben had a very good time at the RBS. His first year teacher was Meelis Pakri who had just joined the school and who Benjamin regards as a mentor. Mr Pakri trained at the Vaganova Ballet Academy before dancing in the Soviet Union and then in the US for 10 years. Ben found Mr Pakri an amazing teacher who was very invested in his students and pushed for the basics of technique, which aged 15 Ben needed. They are now friends although Ben will always have respect for him and view him as the teacher. Ben was room-mates and best friends with Vadim Muntagirov. He, Vadim and Dylan Gutierrez (who is now dancing in the US for Joffrey Ballet) had a healthy competition between them and were always practicing in breaks or the back corner in class.

With nine overseas trips during his time at school, Ben felt that he was part of a very lucky group. In the February of his first year there was an exchange to the Vaganova for a week with two students from each year. He found it inspiring to be dancing in the same studios as Baryshnikov and Nureyev. There was also a trip to Palermo. In his second year he went to Dresden, to the Youth America Grand Prix, where he won a Silver prize, and to Orange County, California. In his third year he went to Portugal and to Florence dancing the La Corsaire pas de deux and on tour to Salt Lake City as well as dancing for the Critics’ Circle Awards at Sadler’s Wells.

After Swan Lake, Akane danced in Manon. Then after one performance of La Bayadère, Monica Mason told Akane that she had a contract with the Company. She spent her first year dancing corps roles before her first opportunity to dance solos came in The Sleeping Beauty. Akane had learnt the steps from the back of the studio for the roles as she was a cover but then Monica asked Akane to dance Florestan sister. In the end, Akane danced most shows as one of Florestan sisters or Fairy of the Enchanted Garden. Then she danced Blue Girl in Les Patineurs which she had been cast for.

Ben got a stress fracture in his foot in the last week of his third year at school. On reflection, perhaps he had been dancing too much with rehearsals every day for Oberon in The Dream, the La Corsaire pas de deux and Stanton Welch’s piece, Les Jeunes Hommes. He was supposed to join the Company in August 2009 but Monica called him in Australia and told him that he should stay at home till he was ready. He came back to London in November and first danced on stage in May 2010, danced on tour and then six months into his second season when he was getting lots of good roles (Pas de six in Giselle, one of the six men in Rhapsody, one of the four men in Cinderella), it happened again. This time it took eight months to get back. He then danced for two months before it happened again. The first time it happened, the doctors advised him to avoid an operation but the third time it happened, an operation was only option. This time Ben was out for 12 months. It was one day less than one year that he was back on stage dancing in Onegin in January 2013.

Having had such a lot of time injured, other people had replaced him in roles that he had been given, and in addition, Ben did not initially feel confident in his dancing, worrying about both his bad foot and also a couple of minor issues with his other foot. He commented that it is only from November 2014 that he felt that he was dancing well. Now he feels that he is in the best shape since school and his initial injury. He danced Benvolio in the recent run of Romeo and Juliet when he had the most fun he has ever had on stage with the company as he was dancing with friends, Matthew Ball and Luca Acri. He is now dancing two performances as Nephew in The Nutcracker as Paul Kay has taken a three month leave of absence. He is also, finally, dancing in Rhapsody in January. Although this is his seventh season in the Company in a way it feels like his third as for most of the first three seasons and part of the fourth he was injured. On injury, Ben commented that when you are young, you want to work hard and push yourself but when you are young you do not know yourself and your body well and it is hard to get the balance right between working hard and working too much. He recollects his foot being painful but that he did not want to admit that there was a problem even though he could not fully do class. In the end he only managed two of the Linbury shows.

Akane’s first principal role was Olga in Onegin which was at the beginning of her second season as a Company member. It felt different to previous roles as there was more acting. Akane read the book in order to learn the character who she feels is quite simple and who is really in love with Lensky so she is not flirting with Onegin on purpose, she is just trying to enjoy her party. It was a role that came naturally to Akane and she was taught by Lesley Collier.

That she has worked with Wayne McGregor quite a lot is a surprise to some people who regarded Akane as a more classical dancer. The first piece that Akane danced in was Limen where she was involved in the creation. Initially she was just following in the back of the studio but Wayne then told her that she was doing the piece. Akane missed the revival as she was injured. Live Fire Exercise was the next piece and Wayne choreographed a more major part for her. Akane commented that dancing in a McGregor piece is always painful as you need to give everything to the rehearsal even after the end of a long day – and the rehearsals always seem to be at the end of the day. It is not possible to be in a McGregor piece and dance at half-power as the process is demanding both physically and mentally.

For Akane, Woolf Works has been the most enjoyable McGregor creation, particularly her sad wife role in Act 1. There was no change in his way of working despite being a narrative piece. He makes a lot of movements and then picks what he likes from them – it can be hard to remember all the movements as well as to vary them, particularly when both your brain and body are tired. When asked how much Wayne explained, Akane commented that while there was a dramaturg for Woolf Works, for Live Fire Exercise there was little background except for being asked to describe with her body initially exploding and then when the fire went down she was to describe it with her body settling.

Akane has also danced Chroma and this is easy to enjoy dancing as the steps are known. Ben commented that if the music is interesting, it is easier to enjoy a ballet. While the music informs the energy of the steps and choreography, at the beginning of the process, Wayne provides the music and therefore the accents himself. It gets easier after about one third of the process, when the steps get put to counts by Amanda Eyles, the notator.

The first full length classical ballet that Akane danced was Kitri in Don Quixote. She had been a cover but replaced Alina Cojocaru when she left for English National Ballet. The painted floor for the ballet had been slippy and had been replaced as the dancers had complained about it, however, Akane was dancing in a show before filming and they wanted to experiment to see whether the painted floor would be better. Sarah Lamb had called her to tell her that the floor was back to the painted one but this knowledge was not enough to prevent her debut being three steps before falling and then another three steps before falling again. After Act 1, an announcement was made that they had problems with the floor and by Act 3 it had been changed to the one for Giselle which was then kept for the remainder of the performances.

Akane had earlier been cast as the lead in The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake but she had been injured. She has an on-going knee problem where the cartilage is not smooth enough and it is painful to plie. Akane works with the sports scientists in the new rehab facilities in the Opera House every day to try and make her knee stronger. Ben commented that not everyone uses the sports scientists as their use is optional but that they have helped a lot of dancers. He used them in his recovery from injury but also now uses them to help make him stronger and therefore better able to cope with potential injury and has learnt a lot from them. They have no background in ballet but a lot of knowledge of the body.

Akane has now danced both Aurora and Odette/Odile. When she missed her debuts, she was very sad but she now believes that she needed the time she was given to get stronger and she was able to watch a lot of other dancers do the roles. She works with Lesley Collier for every role and is now working on Sugar Plum Fairy for The Nutcracker and she will start on Giselle in January. Giselle is one of her dream roles and she is very excited about starting rehearsals. She also has her debut as Young Girl in Two Pigeons on Saturday. Akane loves the ballet and always want to cry when the Young Man leaves at the end of Act 1. She has just found out that Gypsy Girl kisses him in Act 2 and is now looking askance at Mayara Magri, who dances Gypsy Girl in her cast.

Ben is working with Christopher Carr and Jonathan Howells for Nephew in The Nutcracker. He has just had a stage call but will be in the studio until his performances although he is dancing other roles in the ballet before Nephew.

Ben was asked about the history of ballet in the Philippines. He commented that there is Ballet Philippines and Ballet Manila, both based in Manila. Imelda Marcos loved ballet and in her time gave a lot of money to ballet but it is much harder now to find money. His parents have a ballet training programme that is used internationally, including by schools in the Philippines, which should help improve the standard of ballet in the country. Ben and Akane have not danced together much but they did in the Philippines this summer doing the Adagio and Coda from The Sleeping Beauty pas de deux. At the Opera House they have only danced in small things together, such as Cards in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Akane was asked about her former classmates from the Bolshoi Academy. There are four from her class dancing in the Bolshoi and one with the Novorsibirsk Ballet and one with the Mikhailovsky Ballet.

David thanked Akane and Benjamin for a most interesting evening.

Report written by Annette Fraser, corrected by Akane Takada, Benjamin Ella and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2015

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